The internet age poses both opportunity and difficulty for the politically minded instrumental composer. The opportunity is that the liner notes can be shared far and wide, even to those who don’t purchase the music. The difficulty is that many will choose to play the music without ever perusing the words. One’s appreciation for the work of Robert Curgenven is deepened when one learns the stories behind the compositions. One hopes that their mystery and menace will entice listeners to seek further explanation.
Sirène was the composer’s opening salvo, released earlier this year. And yet in many ways, Sirène can be considered the companion piece to They tore the earth and, like a scar, it swallowed them instead of the reverse. The album’s subtitle is Selected Pipe Organ Works 1983-2014, which correctly implies that it focuses more on the instrument than on the story; and one of the tracks is a remix of a piece found on They tore the earth. As this is the opening track, it invites listeners to play the albums in “reverse” order, the originals first. But the order of play also changes the way one approaches the story.
Who tore the earth and was subsequently swallowed by it? According to Curgenven, the culprits are the colonialists who ravaged the Australian landscape, showing little regard for the native populace. And yet, the unforgiving landscape was hard on the invaders as well; this was no land of milk and honey, but a harsh territory best navigated by its original inhabitants. Play Sirène first, and the sonic story begins in bleakness: organ tones distended and otherwise manipulted, rising to the ravages of the second work. Play They tore the earth first, and the slow notes of Sirène settle like an aftermath. The albums become metaphor: stories change based on the teller. Ask an Aborigine to share the story of the land, and one may hear tales of rape and sorrow. Ask a suburbanite, and (if they can recall the story at all), they may share one of conquest and glory.
They tore the earth begins with a thunderstorm and develops into a series of rustlings and drones. Vast amounts of field recordings are embedded in the mix, collected over the course of a decade in thirty remote Australian locations. True to the landscape, this set is as hazardous in tone as the unfamiliar sounds must have been to the colonialists. The diametrical opposite of Men at Work and didgeridoo music, the album is instead visceral, startling and bleak. The cover – caught somewhere between the killing of the firstborn in Exodus and The Shining – is as fearsome as that of Sirène is inviting. Come for the natural resources, stay for the slaughter. Even the vinyl is red. The birds seem to mock the visitors from the trees. Dogs bark; scorched earth crackles. Invaders, what hath thou wrought?
Sirène injects a secondary story, that of Curgenven’s return to the land from which his ancestors originally hailed: the peninsula of Cornwall. There the artist returns as well to his first love, the pipe organ, investigating the timbres of various instruments throughout the territory. As he travels and records, he muses on deep questions. If Cornwall too was settled and invaded, what is home, and who has the right to claim connection? Additional travel to Germany, the Netherlands and Australia muddies the the water. The album becomes a multi-cultural product, whether it wants to be or not.
Side B of Sirène contains references to Caliban (The Tempest) in both titles and subject matter: a Turner painting and a Beethoven composition. Caliban is an island inhabitant redefined as a monster by Prospero, who is shipwrecked there. Little nobility is evident in the creature/man save for the fact that he prefers to choose his own master – Shakespeare impugning the character by implying that his natural inclination is to serve. Curgenven’s curling tones undulate and unfold like slow realizations. The notes are beaten down, surrounded by static and hiss, warned not to rise. And yet rise they do, again and again, cautiously at first, but eventually with courage. Perhaps this is the courage to tell one’s story, even if it is not the right story, not the approved story, but one’s story nonetheless. (Richard Allen)
Click here for the amazing video trailer from FACT!